Compaq to slide wireless networking in to Armadas

Compaq next year will push into the frontiers of networking even as it rolls out an innovative expansion module for the next version of its Armada notebooks.

On the eve of the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, the company demonstrated embedded USB (Universal Serial Bus) modules for standards-based wireless LAN (local area network) and wireless Bluetooth connectivity, in the MultiPort slot of its next-generation Armada enterprise-class notebooks.

Compaq also plans to tackle a sticky problem for the two wireless specifications: they can't be used in the same device at the same time.

Modules for the MultiPort fit nearly flush on the back of the notebook's display panel and plug into a hidden USB slot. It leaves both of the notebook's PC Card slots free for other peripherals. When no module is being used, a dummy can be inserted.

Compaq demonstrated at the Mobile Focus event here a pair of Armadas equipped with Bluetooth wireless radios, designed for 1Mbit/sec communication between devices in close proximity. Bluetooth is a long-awaited standard for linking PCs to handheld devices, other PCs and peripherals for file transfer, as well as for communication among portable devices that users carry.

One factor holding up Bluetooth products has been certification testing, which is still under way for elements of Compaq's module, said Charles Dittmer, director of communication technologies in Compaq's Portable PC Division. The module is based on an LM Ericsson radio component.

Nevertheless, Dittmer expects the module to be approved in the first quarter of 2001.

As soon as the Armadas are shipped in the first quarter of 2001, users will be able to buy an Armada configured with the wireless LAN module. It will use an Intel radio and antenna and will comply with the IEEE 802.11b standard, which provides for 11Mbit/sec LANs in homes, small businesses and enterprises.

The standard, completed earlier this year, can bring data throughput as high as 11Mbit/sec. Although typical speeds are substantially less in the real world, they soundly beat the former wireless LAN standard at 2Mbit/sec, industry observers say.

The wireless LAN module will be priced between $US200 and $300, and the Bluetooth will cost less than $200, Compaq officials said.

However, Compaq and other equipment makers face an incompatibility challenge that is becoming more urgent as Bluetooth begins to join 802.11b products on the market. Because both use the same frequency spectrum, 2.4GHz, they cannot be used in the same device at the same time. Even with two devices in close proximity -less than about a metre in Compaq's tests, according to Dittmer - the two networks interfere with each other, Dittmer said. This means in many cases a user would have to log off from an office wireless LAN before being able to synchronise a personal digital assitant (PDA) with the PC.

Compaq's first solution will be to introduce a dual-function MultiPort module - but users will have to switch from one to the other through software, Dittmer said.

A later module using components now under development by third parties will be able to automatically switch back and forth between the functions in milliseconds, allowing for operation that seems simultaneous to the user.

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